|Sarah Thornton, Gary Romans, and Dalene Young|
By Tina Arth and Darrell Baker
Evidently, divorce is not always a bad thing. It was allegedly Neil Simon’s split from actress Marsha Mason that indirectly inspired Fools, one of the funniest shows we’ve seen all year. An embittered Simon, faced with a settlement that awarded royalties from his next show to Mason, set out to write a total failure – but happily for audiences, he (ultimately) failed.
Broadway crowds, used to the urbane sophistication of Simon’s usual fare, gave the show a poor reception when it opened in 1981. However, Fools has been delighting less rarefied audiences across the country for the last 33 years, and the current production at the HART clearly illustrates why. The story is absurd, the premise ridiculous, but Simon’s words, shaped by Director Stephen Kelsey and delivered by a strong cast, are genuinely laugh-out-loud hilarious.
Long ago a curse was laid on the inhabitants of a remote Russian village by the angry father of a deceased, less-than-brilliant young man. All of the townsfolk would be forever stupid – really, really stupid – unless the daughter of the (formerly) brightest family in town wed a son of the curse-laying family – OR until a teacher was able to (in 24 hours, no less) nudge the daughter’s IQ toward some unspecified magic number (100?). The teacher falls for the daughter, but realizes that he will never achieve his goal in the time allotted. In a stroke of masterful subterfuge (at least by local standards) the teacher pretends to be a long-lost member of the curse-laying clan, marries the daughter, and releases the town from the curse. Of course, adept audience members (perhaps from another, brighter, village) will discern that the curse should not have been lifted since the conditions were met fraudulently. Remember Dumbo? Timothy the Mouse pulled the same trick, and it worked then, too!
In a solid 10-person cast, clear comic standouts are Gary Romans (Dr. Zubritsky), Dalene Young (his wife Lenya), and Helena Greathouse (Yenchna, the peddler). Romans’ delivery, sense of timing and fluid facial expressions elicit some of the biggest laughs of the evening. Young is his perfect foil – a wide-eyed, good-hearted, slow-witted version of Imogene Coca. Greathouse – earnestly offering flowers as fish from her wagon (why should she suffer just because the fishermen had a bad day?) – plays her role with the intensity of Lady MacBeth, but coming from her it’s a lot funnier.
The roles of straight man and ingénue are generally limited in comic potential by their functions. Mitchell Stephens (the teacher Tolchinsky) and Sarah Thornton (Sophia Zubritzky) overcome this handicap with a combination of acting ability and, let’s face it, sheer cuteness. Thornton’s shining moment, when she demonstrates that she has nearly mastered the art of sitting down, is riveting, and Stephens frequent asides draw the audience into the bizarre, Brigadoon-ish village in which he finds himself.
Nobody plays bewildered better than Tony Smith, and as “Something Something Snetsky,” the Shepherd, he carries on his grand tradition. Brandon B. Weaver’s clipped, delivery (as the evil Count Gregor) bristles with befuddled menace. Thomas Wikle, Debby McKnight, and Jerry Hathaway fill out the cast with the requisite quirkiness.
Fools may be joke-riddled, but the HART was dead serious about the set – it is cleverly designed for ease of movement, and the interiors and exteriors are painted and papered to perfection – even in a relatively short show, audiences appreciate fast scene changes!
Fools runs through Sunday, September 21st with performances at 7:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and 2:00 p.m. on Sundays at H.A.R.T. Theater, 185 S.E. Washington, Hillsboro.